Favorite things: cooking in steel drums

I don’t know what got into me one night a couple weeks ago but I suddenly had one of those primal caveman urges to eat Texas BBQ beef brisket. Spring fever? Some food show on television that had me yearning for something to eat? One thing led to another and I went on an obsessive hunt for how to move beyond merely cooking outside in the March rain to a whole new level of OCD cooking. In the past it was smoking bluefish or trying to make some impossible French sausage thing called a “galatine,” now I need to get back to my Houston roots and figure out barbecue.

I kept hitting two names — Franklins of Austin and the Pit Barrel Cooker — Franklin is the savant of brisket and the PBC is like the most highly rated, recommended backyard barbecue pit on the market consisting of basically an oil drum, a couple pieces of rebar, a charcoal basket, lid and stand. Franklin has a cookbook, so that went on the Kindle. The man is into the best beef so I ordered a pair of black angus brisket flats from Creekstone Farms (forget about finding decent brisket on Cape Cod, especially around St. Patrick’s Day when everything is corned beef brisket for the odious traditional boiled cabbage dinner that makes the house smell like a diaper pail).

The barrel arrived, required zero assembly and went out behind the boat shop. Couple bags of regular Kingsford charcoal, a “chimney starter” and a pair of big cheap roaster chickens and I was ready to season the thing. Split the two birds down the middle, cut out their backbones for stock, rubbed them with the usual mixture of stuff to turn them red and hung them on hooks from the rebar, put on the lid, and went away for 90 minutes. When the digital thermometer read 165 I fished them out, brought them inside and made the house smell like the real deal. Total success. Like best chicken ever.

For Easter I sucked it up and hung a beef rib roast in the barrel — two hours later with a temp of 135 I had the best hunk of cowboy ribeyes ever. This was too easy. I mean you light the charcoal, give the coals 15 minutes to get going, hang the meat (there is a grill option, but hanging lets one cram a lot of meat into the barrel at once), slap on the lid, pay heed to the rule “if you’re lookin’ you’re not cookin'”, set a timer and walk away. There’s one adjustable vent at the bottom, you crack it about 25% if you’re at sea level, and that’s that.

Now brisket is a different deal. The things take a long time to cook. Pull too soon and they are tough as sneakers. Too long and they turn into expensive pot roast. So Franklin is the prophet and I am getting ready by reading his OCD instructions of trimming and rubbing and phenomena such as the “Texas Crutch” (wrapping with foil or butcher paper after six hours), the “Stall” (the point where the internal temperature levels off and doesn’t move while some meat science involving evaporation, cooling, collagens and the Maillard Reaction happens. This coming weekend is the test when the daughter comes home with her Austin-born boyfriend and I try to impress them.

Anyway — if you’re getting ready to drag the grill out for the spring and are thinking about yet another Weber, get the Pit Barrel cooker. So simple a caveman could do it.


When I was a kid I saw some fishermen bring a mess of tautog (Tautoga onitis) into the Town Dock and lay them out on the planks for a hose-off. I’d never seen a fish like it before, and was really fascinated by the horrid red tumor-ish looking thing on their white underbellies. They are known as “blackfish,” “oysterfish” and the “poor-man’s lobster.” Yesterday I caught and ate my first one ever.

Tautog is a word from the Narragansett tribe, originally “tautatog”  and first noted by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, in his 1648 lexicon of the Narragansett language. They are members of the wrasse family and are remarkable looking fish, with thick rubbery lips and snaggle-toothed mouths with blunt teeth for crushing and grinding shellfish and crustaceans, their preferred diet. They spawn inshore in the spring and move off a bit to rocks and wrecks during the summer, migrating to deeper water over the winter. The fish are renowned for being one of the better eating fish in New England, especially in fish chowders, and are said to be tricky to catch given their penchant for diving back into the rocks when hooked up.

With the fall fishing season being measured in weeks if not days, I feel a strange longing to get on the water as much as possible these autumn weekends and put my time in before I put the boats away and settle into another winter of my discontent. So yesterday, on a brisk Columbus Day weekend Sunday, I called around the local bait and tackles looking for crabs — the preferred fall bait of the tautog — found some in Falmouth, and off I went for two quarts of green crabs, some six ounce bank sinkers and four pre-tied rigs.

My son and I took the skiff out through Seapuit and the Osterville Cut and immediately questioned the wisdom of pounding through the three-foot seas to the best tautog spot in the area, a ledge of rocks a mile or so off of Centerville. I could only run the boat at slow ahead while trying to dodge the spray and I could feel the negative vibes radiating off of my passenger as one wave after another soaked us down, rendered my sunglasses useless, and foretold an expedition that would probably redefine “fool’s errand.” But we had $10 worth of crabs to use and I was determined not to throw away good bait just because of a healthy northeasterly breeze pushing a chop into our face. Real men fish when they can, not when it’s nice.

After twenty minutes of slow going I saw the surf crashing over the exposed pile of snaggle-toothed rocks — a bad sight that made me happy to have a VHF radio aboard should something catastrophic happen — and made a slow approach, looking for the best way to anchor in the building seas without crunching the lower unit of the outboard on the pile of glacial till. My son made ready with the anchor, I motored upwind to one side of the reef, told him to let it drop, and waited until it dug in and the boat pointed up into the wind.  We were too close on the first set as only  five feet lay between us and catastrophe. So I went back into gear, took the tension off the anchor line and had him pick it back up for another set about twenty feet off. The advice on fishing tautog was simple: find the obstruction and get close as the fish lurk right around the rocks picking off barnacles and crabs. Setting the baits too far away is useless because the tautog won’t venture very far from their shelter.

With the anchor set and no signs of dragging to our doom like the wreck of the Hesperus, I was confident enough to turn off the engine and make ready with the rods. We were using old fiberglas trolling rods owned by my grandfather — wooden handles, yellow and blue thread around the guides, with old Penn conventional reels filled with 50 lb. test monofilament. I tied on the rigs, clipped on the weights, and, seeing that the boat was pitching way too much to safely play with hooks, took a safe seat, opened up the chinese-food paper quart container, and took out the first victim — a little green crab.

Fishing with bait is a bit violent. Guaranteed to get an “eww” out of the audience, and working with crabs is a bit sadistic. I ripped off the claws and legs until I had a half-dollar sized circle of crab body. In goes the hook, one on top and another below in a classic hi-lo bottom rig

I slung-cast both sets of bait right beside the ledge, handed one rod to my son and kept one for myself.

The boat kept pitching and rolling like crazy. An open 18-foot skiff, in mid October on Nantucket Sound without a single other boat around to offer rescue should the worst occur and Cousin Pete out of town for the weekend and thus unable to answer any panicked cell phone calls to come out in his boat and save us (and I didn’t renew my BoatUS tow policy this summer).  But we had life jackets and a radio so I wasn’t too concerned, just vigilant as we were on the verge of pushing our luck as the white caps built and the wind blew harder off the land in the direction of Hyannisport and the Kennedy Compound.

“Whoa.” My son went from skeptical to interested. I turned and saw his short rod bent double.

“Caught in the rocks?” I asked skeptically.

“Hell no. This is a fish.”

The rod bounced the way they do when there are fish on the other end as he reeled, fighting the submerged surprise. I got ready to assist. Bracing myself against the rolling of the boat as the anchor line creaked and rubbed in the chock. And then, from the green depths, was a black shape. I leaned over, guided the line through my hand to the leader, and swung the catch inboard.

It was a tautog. A black, slippery, pugnacious tautog with the big red “vent”, its exaggerated anal opening all red and protruding due to the crushed shells that pass through it, sort of the fish equivalent of a diet of crushed glass and razor blades mixed with hemorrhoids and fissures. I got a hold of the very cool looking fish, let it calm down, grabbed the fishing pliers and worked the hook out, laid the fish along the ruler on the edge of the cooler seat, and finding it well over the 16″ minimum, tossed it in the bucket for dinner.

Then it was my turn. I landed a little one, about a foot long, and gave it the obligatory good luck kiss on the head and sent it back to grow up.

Thirty minutes, fifty unlucky crabs, and the bucket was loaded with the limit of six squirming fish (three each). I tossed the remaining crabs over the side to fend for themselves or appease the hungry Tautog God, then broke out two beers and a pair of chicken sandwiches slapped together from Saturday night’s leftovers. All was well with the world.  It doesn’t get much better for a guy than to catch fish with his eldest son on a sunny day (and then watch the Red Sox snatch an epic victory from the Tigers later than same day).

The “fun” part began when we got home. I banged a nail into a plank to keep the fish from sliding around while I filleted them and got very up close and intimate with my food. Which is how it should be. The tautogs’ stomachs were filled with crabs and shells (CSI Cotuit, Dave Churbuck fish coroner). I stripped out the guts and gills and set aside the heads and racks to make a fond de poisson (fish stock). While that bubbled away we hit the grocery story and bought the fixings for a Bahamian fish chowder. It was good. The tautog went to their maker in a very good and spicy stew and will see further duty tonight in Baja-styled fried fish tacos.


Colonial Theraflu: Hot Buttered Rum

Last summer I dusted off my bartender’s chops and made a deep dive into the artisinal cocktail craze with a specific focus on Tiki drinks and Italian apertos and vegetals. This fall my focus is on stuff the American colonists drank.

I majored in American History, and two of the best two courses were David Brion Davis‘ course on Jacksonian Democracy and Michael Coe’s seminar on colonial archaeology. Both featured a focus on the important place alcohol had in early America and taken together I got a great introduction into American’s domestic life between 1600 and 1850. Everyone knows the old timers were big drinkers.  Really big drinkers. I mean these people drank alcohol the way modern fat people drink Fanta. The per capita consumption was huge — primarily beer and rum, the latter being the basis of the three-legged Salem slave trade that had New England merchants carrying slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and then molasses from the islands to distilleries around Boston.

“Colonists … enjoyed alcoholic beverages with such names as Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip. If they indulged too much, then they had dozens of words to describe drunkenness. Benjamin Franklin collected more than 200 such terms, including addled, afflicted, biggy, boozy, busky, buzzey, cherubimical, cracked, and “halfway to Concord.” Drinking in America: Colonial Williamsburg.

The origins of the first “cocktail” is attributed to antebellum New Orleans, and has something to do with French bitters, absinthe and American rye whiskey, resulting in the classic Sazerac. In the publick houses and taverns of New England, the drinks were mainly rum based and often served hot. Now they are being revived and the result is kind of interesting, basically like drinking stuff that tastes like liquified pumpkin pie with a kick.

In September, shortly before the end of the yachting season, I was mooring the boat after the sunset when the person helping me forgot to tie off the painter (nautical term for “rope attached to the bow of a small boat for purposes of securing it) to the motorboat (you know who you are Marta).  As I furled the sail I looked up to see the motorboat drifting away towards North Bay. I stripped off my shirt, flexed my muscled torso for the benefit of the ladies, and plunged into the autumnal seas with a gonad-shrinking gasp. The boat was returned, all was well, but I “caught a chill” — code for “I need a drink”  — and at the restaurant that evening, while waiting at the bar for a table, I saw that the drink special that had been chalked on the blackboard was a Hot Buttered Rum.

I was cold.

The drink was hot.

I had become cold while sailing.

Sailors drink rum.

I was tempted but ….

… Bad memories of hot buttered rum gave me pause. I had made them for customers at the Balboa Cafe in San Francisco in the early 80s.  Like a grand total of two of them. The pre-made “mix” was a brown paste that came in a plastic cottage cheese kind of container. It was disgusting stuff. A dollop was spooned into an irish coffee glass, hot water was added to a shot of dark rum, everything got a quick muddle to break it up and melt it and the steaming mess was shoved in the direction of the weirdo who ordered it. No one ordered hot buttered rum. Ever. So the brown paste was of some dubious vintage and I never took a test sip to confirm that it was horrible. It smelled like the basket of dried flowers my mother put on the back of the toilet tank to cover up bad odors.  This is odd because the Balboa was, I argue, the first bar in America to kick off the artisinal cocktail movement – no mixes were uses, all juices were carefully squeezed as needed, and bartenders like me were expected not only to know complex classics, but expected to make them perfectly. The fact we phoned in hot buttered rum was lost on me until this fall when the bartender at Mashpee’s Trevi showed me how it’s supposed to be done.

This was the same bar that turned me onto the evil French 75 earlier in the summer, so with some trust in my heart I ordered one. The bartender built it from scratch. A tablespoon of good butter, a couple tablespoons of dark brown sugar, some fresh grated nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, a shot of really dark Kraken rum, then a trip to the steam nozzle on the espresso machine to get it boiling. He garnished it with a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick.

It was awesome. It was the perfect drink. I felt like I was wearing shoes with pewter buckles, white panty hose, a big white floppy bow tie and a stove pipe Pilgrim hat. I was ready to join Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin and throw frozen dog poop snowballs at the Red Coats in front of the old Statehouse, toss some tea into the harbor, and plot some Manifest Destiny.  I shared it. One person said, “It’s Theraflu for Pilgrims.” That seemed appropriate, especially since the prior Theraflu analogy has been applied to the complimentary lemoncello that restaurants in Florence like to pour at the end of every meal but missed the fact that Theraflu is generally served in a mug of hot water.

It was so good I had to recreate it. I spent some time online searching out recipes. I made a batch and thought it pretty good (but not as good as the one at Trevi). I was biased because I made it, but no one else hanging around my kitchen was exactly clamoring for one, so I guess it falls into the category of acquired taste or total failure.

The hipster artisanal cocktail subculture has seized on reviving the classics from the golden age of cocktails, and with all obsessive (and bloggable) fads, that subculture is spawning branches into Tiki cocktails (Mai Tais, Fog Cutters, Zombies, etc.), vegetals (homemade nocino, Cynar, Aperol, etc.), boutique distilled gin, etc. etc. etc. etc.  The colonial branch in the mixology fad is focused on punches, flips, Bishops, shandy’s, cobblers, mulled ciders, wines,  etc..  This list of new bars from the New York Times caught my eye, primarily because of the news that a new place is opening on Broad Street, the Dead Rabbit:

DEAD RABBIT Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, veterans of the Merchant Hotel bar in Belfast, and Danny McDonald, who owns the Manhattan bars Puck Fair and Swift, collaborate on this historically minded three-story cocktail bar just around the corner from Fraunces Tavern in the financial district. The ambitious spot (named after a notorious 19th-century street gang) intends to combine two of the area’s bygone drinking destinations: the sort of taproom patronized by immigrants and a sporting man’s cocktail lounge. Expect punch, bishops, flips, cups and cobblers, and food. (Late November): 30 Water Street (Broad Street).”

And yes, hot pokers were used to heat up these things, but having converted the fireplace into a gas insert, I am not planning on brandishing any red-hot pokers around my glassware any time soon. This guy made his own, which I think is awesome:

The full story is at Cocktalians.com


Tulips and hyacinths and stomach pumps

Great Easter dinner — I roasted a lamb, grilled some asparagus, etc.  and wound up eating about 20 deviled eggs which was the beginning of a deep-end slide off the Paleo wagon into a total caloric orgy of cupcakes, lemon meringue pie, cake, grilled Greek halloumi cheese, dolma, Irish/French(?) coffee made with armagnac (which made me start shouting at the television in the latter hapless innings of the Red Sox-Tigers game) and then a post-prandial food coma with a couple more cupcakes just to seal the deal.

I saw the doctor this morning for a routine checkup and my blood pressure was 100 over 70 which earned me a big attaboy in addition to praise for shedding a lot of weight since the last visit. Today is a day of penance and carrots with a trip to Crossfit Cape Cod coming to further flagellate myself for the 10K calorie day on Sunday.

Oh, and I have tulips.

Personal Analytics: Track Thy Self

I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.

One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.

In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time.  Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.

I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.

I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.

For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate.  The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.

The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.

To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.

Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.

The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.

A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.

Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being.  The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc..  One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.

Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.

One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.

My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.


Ruminations on jelly

The hunter-gather lifestyle can be a bitch, but that’s the point isn’t it? To don the 19th century hair shirt and try to abide with what one can oneself catch, harvest, gather and transform into something edible? Readers of Michael Pollan’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma will understand the sheer labor involved in preparing food from scratch. Pollan goes so far as to try to make his own salt (a dismal failure) from San Francisco Bay, but I can identify with the satisfaction of pulling something out of the kitchen based on one’s own labors in the garden or on the working end of a clam rake or fishing rod.

Growing up with a grandmother who survived the Great Depression on Cape Cod gave me some interesting insights into how things were done in the days before foodies ruled the kitchen, when salt and pepper was about it when it came to spices, and canning — the act of putting away food in supposedly sterile containers — was a fact of life. The woman made her own ice cream, her own jellies. She lived out of an ancient edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook and a metal box of index cards bearing printed recipes for some of the world’s most inedible substances, including a particularly foul lime jello mold with a core of horseradish flavored tuna fish. My old man wouldn’t eat fish, and claimed they boiled and canned bluefish to insure protein during the long barren Cape Cod winters. He would eat clams, preferring to find them with his bare feet, but fish was strictly off the list.

Grandmother made jelly every September or October. The prized substance was beach plum jelly, from fruits harvested on Sampson’s Island from among the poison ivy and wood ticks; then later: harvesting bushels of Concord grapes from the ancient arbor in front of the house and turning them into jelly. I remember helping her pick the grapes, wash the grapes, stem them, slip off the skins, seed them, boil them, strain them through cheesecloth …. all for a glass of purple grape juice that tasted precisely like Welch’s Grape Juice. She made jelly, pouring the stuff into little glasses and sealing it off with a blob of molten wax. She made jam, complete with seeds and raisins, which was inedible as far as I was concerned.

A few years ago, long after she passed away, I tried to make jelly with the kids, misunderstood the chemistry of jellies, and wound up with quart jars of vulcanized purple rubber that had the consistency of a Super Ball, refused to spread, and tore the hell out of any bread unlucky to  be selected to receive it.

So what in the world inspired me to do it this year? Who knows. The story is a sad one. Let’s just say I have boiled, canned, sterilized, and watched for three days as my purple grape juice sat liquid in the jars, refusing to gel. So I open up every one of the jars, dump it all back into a pot, toss in handfuls, quarts, pounds of granulated white sugar, boil it, boil it some more, re-ladle it into the jars, resterilize, let them cool, and six hour later declare defeat yet again.

Having just finished the THIRD attempt to make the crap gel I am here to say that a) given the ratio of grape juice to sugar – 4 cups of juice to seven teeth-rotting cups of sugar and b) the addition of the mystery ingredient pectin and c) the realization that the finished product is no different from a jar of Welchs or Smuckers that homemade grape jelly is the single stupidest thing I have done in the kitchen and probably the unhealthiest to boot.

That said, I have fingers crossed that three times is the charm and the crap will finally gel so I can press it onto unsuspecting guests, fingers  crossed that they don’t develop some botulism from my imperfect canning skills.

Thank god for factory farming is all I want to say.

Update: the crap jelled. Wife declares it is no better than Welchs, perhaps worse.

A good clam cooked well

The more I cook the more I realize I have never gone wrong with Marcella Hazan‘s cookbooks, especially my well worn and falling apart copy of  Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. On Saturday night I found myself with a lot of quahogs and about four dozen beautiful littlenecks I dug with my son on the falling tide. Littlenecks generally get opened and eaten raw on the half-shell, but I wanted a white clam sauce and some pasta so I turned to Marcella’s bible of Italian and made her version of the classic spaghettini con vongole.

The clams came from a very special spot that I won’t disclose because it’s my go-to spot for littlenecks. Quahogs are graded by size. and the most delicate and tasty are the small ones, about the size of a silver dollar, called littlenecks. A step bigger, the right size for clams casino, are cherrystones, and above them come a sort of neither here nor there middle ground that really doesn’t have a name — save perhaps “clams” — and at the high end, for stuffed quahogs or making chowder are the eponymous “chowder” clams about as big as a big man’s fist.

The smallest clams have to  be run through a steel gauge to make sure they are legal. The basket on my Ribb rake is also allegedly spaced correctly to let juveniles drop through, but I use the gauge just to be sure. Any babies get tossed into deeper water where the gulls can’t forage them and they can grow up to become chowders.

The spot is good because it is a small river — a stream really — that has a lot of water velocity with the rising and falling tide and that means the clams are fresher than the ones in stagnant water. They live in sand, not black mud, and are easy to clean and usually deliver a chewing experience without sand or grit. I also have a respect for funky clams, the kinds that give you 36 hours on the toilet or a permanent case of hepatitis. Let’s just say I don’t eat August littlenecks.

We took all we needed in 10 minutes, coming up a few times with rakes filled with six, seven littlenecks. These are not littlenecks in the picture below, but cherrystones.

We wore waders because it is April after all and waders made a day on the water a lot more enjoyable — no filling of boots, no shivering in the windchill of the speeding motorboat, the air temperature on the water in the early spring feels at least ten degrees colder than it does on land, in the yard, out of the wind. We took our littlenecks, measured them, then set off for another spot to look for bigger clams for an Easter Clams Casino and some chowder base to freeze up for the summer when there is company.

The bigger clams are a little harder to harvest, but in 15 minutes we had our limit, coming up with multiple clams on every pull of the rakes.


We packed it in, climbed back onto the boat and went for a brisk spin around Grand Island to see if Dow Clark the mechanic had success in clearing the clogged carburetor jets on the old Honda. We flew through West Bay, under the drawbridge, and past the boatyard, still in hibernation under a shroud of shrink wrap.

So the recipe? Steam the clams on high heat until the shells pop, then pluck them out and shuck them into a bowl, saving the clam juice. Saute in 6 tbsp. of olive oil about six big garlic cloves sliced very thin and a big shallot. Throw in two diced plum tomatoes, a cup of dry white wine,  two tbsps of red pepper flakes, three tbsps. of chopped parsley and reduce it down. Turn that off, boil a big pot of salted water, cook a box of thin spaghetti until it is almost done — drain, throw in the saute pan with the tomatoes, garlic, oil, etc., toss over high heat until all the liquid is evaporated. Turn off the heat. Throw in the clams and their juice, a dozen torn up basil leaves and eat. One of the better uses of four dozen littlenecks I’ve ever tried. Tomorrow – clams Casino and chowder before the Easter feast.

Portland Food Coma

I haven’t been eating enough lately — trying to unpack some fatass poundage picked up during the immobility of the detached retina recovery, holiday bacchanalia, Vegas, and oh-my-god-it’s-winter-in-America pity junk food binges. That’s right, Dave is back on the erg and eating like a neurotic again.

Anyway, in my blog reading rounds I like to dwell at places like Slice and other outposts of gustatory goodness, but with the current Lenten denial-fest underway, food writing is the last thing I need.

Then Cousin Tom the Maniac sent me a link to this wonder: The Portland (Maine) Food Coma.

The premise is perfect (or at least my projected premise), ride out a Maine winter by cooking like a fiend, and then eating it (and drinking).

This guy is good. His birthday feast of the Buddha Jumps over the Wall is awesome. And he looks like my kind of guy.

“As the final day begins, we all enjoy our schedule being radically fucked up from daylight savings time. All it really meant to me was that I was cracking open an ice-cold Schlitz at 10:30 instead of 9:30, which was brilliant.”

“The cooks would all get hammered on bitters during the day, causing them to have these rings around their mouths that made them look like bloodthirsty clowns. The few customers we had would be routinely ignored in lieu of the fun happening in the kitchen. The dishwasher, whom we had lovingly nicknamed “Chud,” would be running around with a sauce pot on his head while Mudvayne blasted on the radio. I felt especially bad for this kid the time he came in and discovered a tick on himself, and we convinced him that only way to deal with it was for us light matches and snub them out on his skin.”

Stalking the elusive Lahmacun

So Bourdain was all over the lahmacun — the cheese-free Turkish pizza made out of minced lamb and peppers and stuff on a flatbread sort of crust that one rolls around a wad of parsley, arugula, sprinkles with sumac, and squeezes lemon all over. Result — I’ll have another please. Five days of searching and I can’t find the damn thing. I figure it would be as ubiquitous as pizza is in a U.S. strip mall, but no, lahmacun is too low rent for a nice place and too high end — as in you need an oven to bake the crust — for the average bufe doner kebab joint around the tram stops and ferry landings. Gary and me left the Grand Bazaar after two hours of major souk-ifying and were stunned by this call to prayer. Inspired, we went on the lahmacun hunt, old hands at this point of avoiding the touts.

“May I sell you something you don’t need?”

“You look like a rug expert!”

A food tout nailed me after the hair-raising call-to-prayer and waved a cartoonish laminated menu in my face. I said the magic word and he flipped through the pages and put his finger on this off-register-purple-color picture of a round disk of ground meat. I had found the elusive lahmacun. There was no time for a sanitary inspection. Decor and ambiance be damned, Gary and me were going to sit and eat. And so we did. This stuff kicked butt. Praise be to Bourdain. Gary, having ordered frozen fish sticks the day before, was happy to see me happy and let me bully him into ordering kiyamali and sucuklu — football shaped loaves of pita covered with meat paste or cheese and salami. As Bourdain would say, “Stoner Food.” I drank a plastic cup of salty yogurt goo called an ayram. A hungry cat stared at me. Istanbul is infested with cats and cloned dogs that look creepily like Cujo mixed with my brother’s bull mastiff. Obviously some ancestral Balkan war dog breed. Anyway, the cat was desperate to get through the glass and get some unpronounceable.

Bourdain on lahmacun at the 7:15 point